Neil Martin’s Jazz Odyssey
Jazz, the last refuge of the pretentious and self-important. The place old hipsters go to die, a land of odd time-signatures, modal scales and other elaborate music theory stuff designed to make the average music listener feel like an uneducated buffoon. An impenetrable, closed community that often seems impossible to navigate. Over the years, I have dipped my toes in and out of the murky waters of jazz, listening to those albums and artists that cross over and are referenced by rock and pop musicians. Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue often seems to be the entry point for many and indeed was for me. Most people’s relationship with jazz rarely goes much further than this and maybe a couple of aborted attempts to listen to Bitches Brew all the way through and pretending that you understand what everyone is raving about.
My own jazz odyssey has developed over the last couple of years and I have been delving a little deeper into this strange world and its complex, hidden delights more and more frequently to the point that in recent months it seems that I have listened to little else. Jazz has certainly become the genre I am spending most of my money on lately. I think part of the appeal is the vast unknown nature of it all. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about music with a massively eclectic taste but despite this, or perhaps because of it, it sometimes feels that there is nothing else to discover. As soon as I started delving into jazz though I realised this was not the case and in fact here was a whole genre, covering 100 years that I knew next to nothing about.
Where do you even begin with such a wide ranging musical palette on offer. There’s Bebop, Hard Bop, Post Bop, Dixieland, Free Jazz, Jazz Funk, Jazz Fusion, Ragtime, Swing, Big Band, Vocal Jazz and a whole host of other sub-genres that may or may not be worth investigating. There is such a host of information out there as well that even researching jazz becomes a mammoth task in its own right. I tried a variety of websites and books, I even tried a couple of jazz mags (but that’s a whole different article!) and eventually managed to find some starting points. I went back to Miles Davis and Kind Of Blue which is such a wonderful, perfect album full of incredible ensemble playing, subtle artistry and magnificent flourishes of individual genius from all of the players involved. I figured that anything by or featuring any of these musicians would be a good bet and anything that was supposedly similar would be worth checking out as starting points on my journey. The problem is that so many jazz artists are all over the map stylistically so if they have a long career, which many of them do despite the seemingly obligatory heroin addictions, they might go from Trad and Big Band through Hard Bop and end up at Free Jazz. Now I quite like some of the more experimental jazz I have encountered but it is kind of hard on the ears with a lot of atonal parping and honking that gives the suspicion you are being sold the emperor’s new clothes so its a tricky river to navigate that often results in me asking the question “Is this good or is it shit? I really can’t tell”. Sometimes that is the best question to be asking yourself but as a starting point I would not suggest you jump straight in at the deep end of experimental jazz.
After many hours spent listening to all of the different permutations of jazz I finally decided that my own preferred sub-genre/era of jazz is that which falls into the ‘bop’ camp, be that bebop, hard-bop or post bop. Most of my favourites would probably be described as fitting into these categories and perfectly bridges that gap between accessibility and ferocious improvisation. The majority of other jazz has a tendency to go too far on either side of this gap although there are, of course, gems to be found on either side.
So, in conclusion, I suppose the best way to explore jazz is just to jump right in and see what floats your boat but if you want some pointers here’s my 5 Albums To Listen To After ‘Kind Of Blue’ and a mixtape (above) featuring some of my favourite pieces.
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – Moanin’ (1958)
Possibly my favourite jazz musician. Blakey’s drumming defies description and as well as making several of my favourite jazz albums with the messengers he is the drummer on many of my other favourites.
John Coltrane – Blue Train (1957)
A stone cold revolutionary masterpiece with some of the most mind blowing soloing you will ever hear.
Art Pepper – Meets The Rhythm Section (1957)
A minor classic and a very recent discovery for me. It has a fantastic back story, probably not true, involving Pepper turning up to the recording session in the grip of serious heroin addiction with a busted sax having never met the band before.
Charles Mingus – Ah Um (1959)
Simply stunning and probably the best place to start in exploring the incredible world of bassist Mingus who went on to release my favourite album title ever, ‘Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus’.
Grant Green – Solid (1979)
Recorded in 1964 but not released until 15 years later. I always thought jazz guitar was a bit slow and old fashioned but this is blistering stuff.
Words and mixtape by Neil Martin